Have you ever noticed that the favorite gift on a child’s birthday is often not the toy but the cardboard box the toy came in? The theory of loose parts, introduced in the 1970s by architect Simon Nicholson, explains why so many children love to play with boxes and the benefits of this type of play.
Loose parts are objects that have open-ended purposes, meaning they can be used in any number of ways. They include things found in nature (pine cones, dirt, water and sticks) or they can be manufactured (fabric, cotton balls or measuring cups). Traditional “finished” toys typically only have one purpose; a doll is a doll and a truck is a truck. Because the use of loose parts isn’t predetermined, loose parts give kids control over their play, and they encourage problem solving and creativity.
Try introducing a few loose parts to your child’s play. If you’re worried about the mess (a giant pile of leaves in your living room can get a little out of hand), give your child access to a few loose parts at a time. Something as simple as a handful of rocks mixed in with Matchbox cars might keep your child busy for hours. If not, try something different. Maybe paper towel rolls with the cars will spark more imaginative play.
Some children might have a hard time getting started and not know what to do (other than throw the loose parts at a sibling). Try asking a few questions to get them thinking. For example “I wonder what would happen if we tried to stack _____?” or “What does this piece of _____ look like to you?” Then step back and let them create.